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The Task At Hand

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Following are some recent writings I have shared with friends. As is my style, beginnings and endings tend to join together, much like the snake that devours its own tail, so with that in mind you may imagine walking into a movie just minutes after its opening scene has started, but you know you really haven't missed anything but casting credits.

A little forewarning: The following story is meant to be visually compelling, and so great care has been taken to set the tone and the pace. There are some graphic "scenes", but nothing such that wouldn't be possible in the grim dark of the 41st Millennium. However, these scenes are NSFW, so I caution you to read these on your own time, and in the company of those familiar with things grim and dark. In other words: don't start reading and leave your tab open for the boss or admins to wander by and take to curiously wondering about its contents while your out to lunch.


Act I, Scene I 

Next in were the witches. They had been stripped of their clothing, blinded with tightly buckled bands of leather, muffled with tarnished brass bits secured with twisted wire, and shackled snugly to what appeared to be the metallic frames of chairs set upon crude castors. The frames of their supports seemed curious; one front leg rose from the floor, curling back and around beneath the buttocks to support its struggling occupant, then curling again to the fore ere bending toward and terminating at the floor, and the rear legs and back support were of one sharply bent piece, seemingly welded to its structural partner.
The screeching was skin-prickling; not alone that of castors upon the stone shod flooring, but as well the anguished cries of the accused, as if they were afflicted of pains prodded upon them by an invisible torturer. Examinors then began to shear their hair with the use of crude bronze scissors and inspect them for tells and marks of evil. One, a woman, struggled against her bonds and did choke forth froth as her tormentor knelt on the flags before her, briskly inserting his speculum within her womanly orifice, examining her for evidence of unnatural tearing. Apparently satisfied she did at least chose to not fornicate with the diabolical, he returned his instrument to the pocket of his blood stained smock, and proceeded to the next miserable wretch in the line.
While mesmerized by such gruesome physical exhumations and an overabundant application of fillister clamps, I failed to witness the entrance of the libertine…

‎…Augustus struck an imposing figure, e'en so casually sitting upon a richly upholstered divan, flanked to one side by his seneschal, a hunched mutant to the other bearing an upended casque of tarnished silver banded in gold. My interest was piqued by the drape of crimson silk concealing the interior of the casque's bowl, yet ere I could inquire anon the Senate processional began to file into their tiers.
Soft at first, their voices rose to the vaults and echoed about the chamber, but as the tiers filled the increasing barrage of greetings, jibes, and chastisements did mix into a din of unintelligible mumble. Some few of the Senators did detour along their paths to offer congratulations or generic encouragements to the gaggle of youths, boys and girls of maybe eight to ten years of age, sitting cross-legged near the foot of the dais, and I shuddered with the foreknowledge of their coming trial.
At last the Senators were seated, coming to order and silence of their own accord, and Augustus did speak unto us.
"Learned and wise Priest-Brothers of the Secular, we have before us this day a fine selection of aspirants, young and hale and eager. Let us see then which of these shall travel to the sea, to seek out and return to us the sunken treasures beneath the briny waves."
There were then cheers and whoops of delight, and a frightening loud shuffle as the Senators stood as one body, leaning upon their rails and craning to peer over pates and shoulders.
An attendant appeared from a curtained alcove, and ushered the children to rise. Each wore a diaphanous cyan shawl, but as they were ushered beyond the straining witches toward the edge of the long pool they disrobed, one-by-one leaving their drapes in a heap and treading naked upon the decking. Each youth was then fitted with an ankle tether, a silken braid of maybe two or three yards in length ending in a leaden orb of not light weight. As each was tethered, they reached downward to grasp their cords, lifted and stood upright once more, the anchors swinging small orbits or pendulums as they waited for the remaining aspirants to be fitted. Once so tethered, the youths were divided into four groups, eight in each. When they were to their assigned ledge, the attendant blew forth a shrill tweet from a pipe whistle, and the youths dove head-first into the crisp clear waters of the pool…

There was a brief, wet snicking noise. It sounded to me as if someone had quickly snapped scissoring blades in a filled bucket. The surface of the water bounded upward, then settled. Hearing a linen rustle, I turned to see Augustus rise from his divan, adjust his embroidered drape, descend the dais, and stride calmly and without hesitance onto the water's surface. I admit to having an expression of dumbfounded awe, as for all the world it appeared he defied physical laws and refused to sink, his sandal clad feet softly plapping mere millimeters into the water's depth. I know now that a barrier field had sealed the pool, invisible, razor thin, impenetrable.
Augustus came to a halt above the first gathering of submerged youths and bent slightly to observe their activity. He then beckoned for me to attend him, his mien coquettish, gently tamping his foot to reassure me of my safety, though in truth this did little to assuage my doubts. Recovering from my stupefied gawp, I joined him, trepidatiously, and with each step expecting a sudden, unpleasantly brisk dunking. As I came abreast of him he stooped again to gaze downward, and with great curiosity I leant forward to peer below my toes at the object of his fascination.
A crystal hemisphere sat upon the bottom of the pool, mounted in place by a riveted band of iron, a nicotine yellow light pulsing within. Tethered to their anchors and their cheeks puffed with held breath, the youths either swam about collecting puzzle-shaped plates of iron, or sat encircling the crystal assembling a puzzle ring from the plates retrieved by their group mates. Their actions were frenetic.
Curious, I looked down the length of the pool, and I could just make out the next group in line. It seemed they had completed their puzzle ring; the crystal there was emitting a soft emerald glow; and the youths were now swaying in gentle currents of their own making, each with one hand clasped around their tether line, waiting.
Waiting for what?
My eyes widened with comprehension as the coin dropped, and looking below again I noted a quickening measure of the crystal's pulsing glow.
"As you know, only those with the greatest endurance are chosen", remarked Augustus. He was correct, of course. I did know. I asked of him "The others, those who have finished with their puzzle rings, may they not return to the surface?" "No", Augustus quietly replied, "they will all succeed, or they will all perish."
A furtive movement below my feet drew my attention. A girl, maybe eight or nine years of age, her image distorted by long flat bubbles, clawed at the bottom of the barrier's surface, pounded upon her invisible captor. She had expelled her breath, her lungs no doubt burning, starved of oxygen. Gods preserve my sanity, but there was no sound, no scratching, no dull thud. Her jaw working in slight jerking motions, she attempted to inhale. Of a sudden, her eyes widened in fearful realization, but her stare soon became far off, fading. Below her, the other youths continued about their task, their group mate forgotten.
As the final truth of these trials was revealed to me I looked at the senator with incredulity. Seeing my expression, he said "Yes, Alekzanter. And it has always been so."
With thick tears of acknowledgment glistening at my eyes, I gazed downward, staring at the crystal, willing it to turn an emerald hue. Pregnant seconds ticked slowly away, and still that sick, yellow fluttering. I shuttered tight my eyes, my building tears forced from my lids and down my cheeks. "Please", I silently implored to no one.
I did not hear the senator leave my side, nor the snicking hiss of the barrier field as it whisked open. Yalping with surprise, I fell into the pool's clear brisk waters. Temporarily blinded by the splash, my tread foundering as the waters soaked my robes, I was relieved at least to hear the sound of many gulping breaths echoing my own.

Here Endeth the Scene


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Act I, Scene II

I stood in an anteroom decorated with hanging scrolls of unimaginable age, incalculable value, and unintelligible script. Or rather, I didn't make time to translate them while I waited. I was occupied by another matter.
I'd been hauled from the cold waters of the pool, taken to a dormitory, dried and changed, and found myself waiting for an audience with Senator Augustus wearing a cyan shawl normally reserved for the youth harems. Being made of the rarest silks it was quite comfortable, but it was immodestly short for my frame. I kept fidgeting with the hem, certain the attendants waiting beside me were sneaking peeks at my manly attributes while I was otherwise distracted. I can't say I blamed them. I suppose they had a certain right to know what to expect when the senator finally decided to call them to his bedchamber.
My wait was mercifully short, and I was ushered into Augustus' private audience. Known as 'The Chamber of Vigilance', it was where the senator took matters of delicate politics directly in hand.
Augustus stood behind a podium of polished basalt, an odd and intricate contraption of magnifier lenses set upon the bridge of his aquiline nose. The fingers of one hand idly caressed an age worn book mark, the index finger of his other hand traced along the finely printed illuminations in a rather large tome bound in aged shakre hide. My attendants quietly announced my arrival, snatching one last peek toward me as they turned to leave.
I stood silent, expectant, acutely aware of my immodesty and inwardly cursing a man of wealth and power who keeps not a stitch of adult-sized drape for his guests.
The senator was humming. Or rather, reading silently aloud, his voice raising in pitch at some certain passage or article of interest. "…the Ordos brooking no opposition to demands…to be treated as the will of the God-Emperor in all respects…" Looking up from his reading, it seemed Augustus was only now realizing I was in his presence, but he recovered deftly with the practiced smile honed by viperous diplomats, and I shuddered involuntarily. In fact, I began to feel quite ill at ease.
"My dear Alekzanter", began the senator, "let me introduce you to my most respected guest." The curtains parted to reveal… No! The curtains resolved into a man! Blended seemlessly with his surroundings, but then suddenly coalescing before my very eyes in a blink. My skin shivered as it dawned upon me he had been there the entire time.
"Alekzanter", the senator continued, "it is my honored privilege to introduce you to Sire Opal Stark. Sire Stark is a witchfinder. An inquisitor of the Holy Ordo Hereticus. Do you know what this means?"
My blood froze in my veins. An inquisitor! Here! There would be only one reason for him to have come here.
He came for me.

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